There was a municipal election in my city today. I didn’t really feel like voting because it didn’t seem like there was all that much at stake. I could vote for a school board trustee, a city councillor and the mayor. I don’t have any kids or grand-kids but when I vote for school board trustees, I imagine that I do. The councillor in our riding is a star and there is no way he’s going to lose. As for the mayor, I had a preference but I didn’t think the difference between the two front-runners posed an existential threat to our citizens.
Earlier in the day, I was walking along an urban street on a quick shopping trip and I saw what I thought was a fender-bender. The cops were just leaving and as I got closer to the two cars involved, I realized they were nose to nose and one guy was just giving another guy a boost. As I passed them, one of the participants looked me in the eye and asked me if I had voted yet. I said no, not yet, but that I had intended to. He looked kind of familiar in an unknowable way and so I wasn’t surprised when he stuck out his hand. He said, vote for me. I’m running for mayor! And he handed me a card. It was about the most Canadian thing I’ve ever witnessed. The most Ottawa thing.
I felt obligated to vote after that.
I know for certain that I’ve never cast a vote that swung an election. The first vote I participated in was the 1976 American presidential election in my grade six social studies class. I was ten years old and I voted for Gerald Ford because I’d heard of him. He won in a landslide in my classroom. Sometimes it feels that’s about how deep we go in real elections with real life-altering issues. We’ve heard of the guy.
Ironically, my voting location today was in the very public school I attended over forty years ago. And because it’s autumn and the first snowflakes fell just this afternoon, I thought I’d walk through the neighbouring cemetery on the way to the school and have a look at some leaves.
And I thought about what it is to vote. And how many people in that cemetery never got to vote. Particularly the women. And the poor people. And the ones who died young or didn’t know any better. I don’t know how often my grandmothers voted. I know that even in the seventies, it was common for a wife to vote as her husband did so as not to cancel out his vote. Maybe that still happens.
And on a world-wide level, and in an historical context, how many of us have had the opportunity to cast our ballots and let our voices be heard? How many have died for that right? How many miles have uncounted multitudes marched for the privilege? I would guess that those poor Hondurans on their pilgrimage would be pretty happy to walk for ten minutes to be able to vote.
When I got to the school, I voted in the gym where I first played floor hockey so many years ago. I looked upon the stage where I had once been Charlie Brown in the Christmas play. And when I was finished filling out my ballot, about five minutes later, I left the gym and crossed the hall and stuck my head into the classroom where I’d cast my vote in 1976 for Gerald Ford.
And I felt incredibly lucky.
Sometimes there are fine lines between rights, privileges, and obligations. Today’s walk back to school seemed like all three at once.